by Maryn Scott
As a child, Peel Primm was obsessed with spy movies and shows—even renaming herself after the illustrious Mrs. Emma Peel from her favorite TV show, The Avengers. But dreams of becoming a spy when she grew up hardly seemed realistic. So instead, Peel chooses the somewhat less exciting life of a librarian in suburban Denver.
While innocently searching for information on a new branch in her family tree, Peel makes an ill-fated call to a library in Mexico. Soon Peel’s world is turned upside down.
Within days, Peel is beaten, abducted, and smuggled into Mexico where she is the unwilling guest of drug lord Sebastien Gutierrez. To survive she must befriend Gutierrez’s American associate, Anna, and convince her to help Peel solve a decades-old mystery. Soon Anna is struggling with a different kind of captivity—trying to balance the safety of her family with her growing attraction to Peel.
Looks like Peel’s childhood dream might be coming true after all.
|Publication Date||August 12, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Kayla Mancuso|
Peel Primm was stretched out on her couch drifting to sleep when the pop of something hitting the window caused her to sit bolt upright. She knew that sound. At a sprint she ran to the sliding glass door and looked out to her newly potted flowers. She groaned at what she saw. Hail. Little balls of icy destruction hit her patio, her plants, and her house. In no time, the ground was covered with white marbles and shredded leaves. Then things picked up.
The pops against the windows changed to a steady barrage of dime-sized stones hammering the glass. She stepped back as the intensity of the storm increased and the amount of hail doubled. The sound was deafening. For a full minute ice poured into her yard, blanketing everything. She watched until at last the hail changed to heavy rain, then barely a drizzle.
That’s when she heard it. Draining water. Inside the house. “No, no, no,” she cried as she chased the sound down the stairs to the unfinished basement. It’ll be okay, she told herself. Everything down there was in plastic bins. Everything except the corner containing the last of her mother’s boxes.
Which was exactly where the water was coming in. The long window had broken near the top, allowing water to pour in but holding back the hailstones and debris that filled the window well. All of the boxes were wet, but none appeared to be soaked through. Peel ran back upstairs, found a plastic painter’s tarp to lay on her kitchen floor, and carried the boxes up.
The heaviest box had been on the bottom of the pile, the crisscrossed flaps smashed down to form an open square. Now that the box was in bright light, she could see it contained old photo albums. The label wasn’t her mother’s handwriting but her grandmother’s: “Grady Family Photos.” Was it even worth looking at? The Gradys were her grandfather’s adopted family. They’d already raised a family when two-year-old Charles came to live with them. She doubted there would be any pictures of interest to her. Still, her mother had kept the albums. The least she could do was look before throwing them out.
With a deep breath, she pulled the flaps open. One by one, she pulled out the broken albums and loose pages and stacked them on the plastic. Plopping down next to the pile, she paged through the Grady albums. After twenty minutes of looking at the faces of strangers, she was ready to discard the lot. When she got to the last album, she could see that it was the most recent. The children in the earlier photographs were grown, and the couple had aged considerably. She flipped through the pages until one of the larger photographs caught her eye. It was a family portrait, but there was a face she hadn’t seen in any other of the photographs. She picked at the edge, trying to get the photo to lift off the black paper. Once she peeled the first corner, the rest lifted easily. Only the edges had been glued, and when she pulled the photo, she saw why. A neatly folded piece of paper had been hidden behind the portrait. She opened it and gasped.
It was her grandfather’s birth certificate: Jared Charles Devin, born September 19, 1931, to Charles and Elizabeth Leary Devin. Devin. No one had known his real last name. His father had abandoned the young family. Elizabeth Leary’s dying wish was his last name would be changed to Grady. Her heart ached. In the years since her mother’s death, there had been so many things she wished she could have shared, but none bigger than this, her family name.
Myra Primm lost a short battle with lung cancer when Peel was still in college. Although she’d had a persistent cough throughout the summer, no one imagined her ailment was cancer. She’d never smoked and had always been healthy. By the time it was diagnosed, Myra only had a couple of months to live. Peel was twenty when she died.
Her mother’s death brought Peel and her father even closer, if that were possible. She came home from college every chance she got. They talked on the phone often, critiquing movies they’d seen and TV shows they were watching together. Peel’s grades suffered a little with her viewing schedule, but it was worth it to know she was keeping her father busy. His death from a heart attack when she was twenty-five left her devastated. With no siblings, no aunts, uncles, or cousins, she was completely alone. There was no one left who would understand the significance of the paper she was holding.
* * *
The next morning Peel didn’t have to be at the library until midday. She was the youngest of the full-time librarians at their large suburban library. Her day started with lots of book returns and the regular Monday crowd, but by midafternoon the library was quiet. Peel grabbed a cart of returns and made her way through the stacks shelving books. As she worked, she tried to remember the stories her mom had shared about her own father and his childhood. There wasn’t much. She knew he’d been born to a father who didn’t want a family and to a mother who died way too young. His adoptive family had been kind, if not distant. They were in their fifties when they took him in and didn’t give him much attention. It was hard not to draw parallels to her own loneliness.
Fortunately, Monday evenings she sponsored the high school Anime club. It was usually the highlight of her week. This evening, though, the Anime kids were antsy. When Peel joined them, Jenn, their leader, was brainstorming shows for them to watch. Peel eyed the list on the board while Jenn cajoled, “Come on you guys. Somebody has to have a new idea.”
“There’s nothing good out right now. Everybody’s waiting for the new Samurai Ghost Fighter to come out,” one of the boys complained.
A girl in the front threw a look of disgust over her shoulder. “That’s just a rumor. They killed off the main character Seri Sujimoto. The series is over.”
Loud protests came from other areas of the room. “Hello, Ghost Fighter? Of course, they killed off Seri. He’s coming back to fight in another realm.” Peel tuned out the bickering, used to the rhythms of the group. If they stayed true to form, the bickering would go on for ten minutes, then Jenn would get exasperated and pick a show. Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t notice when the argument stopped.
“Peel, hello, Peel?” Jenn was waving a hand in front of her while Kenton dragged a tall chair to the front of the room.
“Yeah, you promised us a long time ago, you’d explain.” Uh-oh. Tuning out was bad, but what could she have possibly agreed to explain? They’d all had sex education, right?
Her panic was short-lived. “That’s right. We want to hear how you went from being a super spy to a librarian,” one of the kids teased.
Oh, that. Crap. She wondered if she offered details on conception if they’d let her off the hook. “It’s a boring story. Nothing dramatic like how I got my name.” She was pleased at the laughter. “See, you still think it’s funny. This story is not funny.”
“That’s okay. If we can’t watch a Samurai decapitate ghosts, we might as well listen to you.”
“Ouch.” Peel grabbed her heart. “Now there’s no way I’m telling you.” They laughed again, and Peel conceded. “Okay, but I’m warning you. There’s nothing to this story.” She took a seat in the center chair and hooked her heels on the crossbar. “All right, you know I was obsessed with spy movies and the TV show The Avengers…”
“What? You mean the movie franchise? Was that even out when you were little?”
Peel was saved from answering by Rachel, a girl she was pretty sure was gay. “No. That’s the name of the TV show with Mrs. Peel.” The girl looked at Peel. “I watched it after you told us that’s how you picked your name. It’s a little cheesy, but her leather catsuit was hot.”
Peel blushed, unsure of how to answer. The leather catsuit had done it for her, too, but there was no way she was going to admit that to a high school student. “Um, okay.” She brushed her hair back off her face. “Anyway, I didn’t tell people I wanted to be a”—she waved her hand—“spy or secret agent, whatever the term is.” She took a breath. “You know when you have career days at school? I couldn’t say, ‘Yeah, my goal is to be in MI6.’”
“Especially since you don’t have an accent,” one of the kids pointed out.
Rachel spoke again. “Steed was the spy. Mrs. Peel was just a ‘talented amateur.’”
“She was not!” Peel exclaimed. “She was as much of an agent as he was.”
“Huh-uh. It’s in the opening credits of the early black-and-white episodes. You know, the ones with the chessboard? He’s a ‘top professional’ and she’s a ‘talented amateur.’ The one who replaced her, Tara King? She was a spy.” Rachel looked around the room. “What? I told you I watched it.”
Peel groaned, only half in jest. “Are you telling me my whole life has been a lie? I’ve been aspiring to be a ‘talented amateur?’”
“She was just as good as he was. If Diana Rigg stayed on the show, they would have made her an agent.” Rachel was trying to salvage her childhood dream. Peel decided to let her.
“You are absolutely right. Plus, she was too busy fencing and sculpting with power tools to have a full-time job.”
“Come on, back to the story,” Jenn demanded.
“Okay. So, when it was time to go to college, my mom was worried. She told me she thought I was using the idea of being a spy to avoid making a real decision about my life.” Peel shrugged. “I probably was. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Peel stopped. “No one’s a senior, right?”
“We will be in a couple of months.” One girl pointed to the boy next to her.
“Do you have any idea what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
“I don’t, but Jeremy wants to design video games.”
“Do people take you seriously, Jeremy?”
“My computer programming teacher does, but my parents think it’s a waste of time.”
“Parents,” she commiserated. “My mom told me to enter school with an open mind and concentrate on doing well in my general education classes. She told me that I would discover a career if I let myself be open to the possibilities. I did what she said, but I kind of cheated, too. Not cheated in college.” She held up a hand to clarify. “Cheated on my promise to my mom. I did the gen ed courses, but when I had a choice, I picked classes I thought would attract the attention of the CIA.”
They laughed. “You think the CIA watches certain classes?”
Jenn was kinder. “Like what?”
“I always liked to analyze things. I took technology, statistics, logic, lots of research, and,” she added with a little smile, “literature classes. Obviously, I like to read.” She gestured around her. “I also watched for recruiters.” When she saw the puzzled looks on the kids’ faces, she explained. “At most universities, businesses and government agencies make campus visits to recruit potential employees. The FBI came a couple of times, so did several police departments, but never the CIA.” She made a face. “Honestly, in the back of my mind, I thought if I just took the right combination of classes, they would find me.”
Some of the kids laughed. Others looked at her sympathetically. Jenn was one of the latter. “That’s sad, Peel.”
“I know. I was immature.” She took a deep breath. “Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer and died the summer before my junior year.” The room was silent. “I went back to school and met with an adviser. Turns out, I’d been on a degree path all along.” She spread her arms wide, gesturing around her. “Library Science and Information Technology. And here I am.”
Jenn crossed the room. She wrapped Peel in a side hug, resting her head on Peel’s shoulder. “We love you,” she said.
“Hey, Peel,” one of the boys called. “What if you’re a new kind of sleeper agent? You know how Russia plants agents in the US and then activates them years later?”
“Yeaahh.” Peel stretched out the word.
“What if you don’t even know you’re a sleeper agent? What if they’ve been monitoring you all this time waiting to call you up?”
Peel widened her eyes, happy to be able to lighten the mood. “I can only hope.”
* * *
Mondays and Tuesdays, Peel worked late. Her usual routine was to sleep in, catch the end of a morning news show, then head to the rec center to work out. Tuesday morning she woke early. When she turned on the television, the anchors’ chatter only irritated her. After a quick breakfast of cereal and toast, she drove to the rec center. Running helped clear her head, and today her mind was clogged. She programmed the pace and plugged in her headphones, allowing the familiar playlist to ease her into the workout. After the third mile, an idea formed.
As part of her graduate work, she’d researched her ancestry. Because she was the only child of two only children, her family tree was barely developed. Her father’s side yielded a few results, but her mother’s dead-ended at her great-grandmother’s death and her grandfather’s adoption. What would the name Devin add? It would be fun to see how much further back she could go.
Showered, she sat at her computer with a fresh cup of coffee and accessed the genealogy site she’d used previously. After reactivating her account, her family tree appeared onscreen. She added Charles Devin’s name. In no time, an entire new branch appeared. Peel sat back, amazed. Her great-grandfather had been born in Pennsylvania, one of seven children. Along with the names of these new ancestors, she also found several primary source documents. Most were census records, and she used them to trace Charles Devin’s path west, ending in her grandfather’s hometown. Unfortunately, that’s where they ended. There was no record of him after that.
The last documents were marriage certificates. She opened the first. Charles Devin and Elizabeth Leary, her great-grandparents, were married in Colorado. She already knew that. She clicked on the second document expecting to see the same copy, then froze, staring at the screen. The bride in the second marriage certificate wasn’t Elizabeth Leary. Four years after his marriage in Colorado, Charles Devin moved to Tierra de Oro, Mexico, and married Louisa Sanchez. She was surprised by the anger she felt. “Asshole,” she said aloud. “You abandoned your family and orphaned Grandpa, and then remarried? Asshole,” she repeated, and slammed the laptop closed.
At the library, Peel was still fuming when she told her supervisor, Sheryl, the story. “I was excited to find the birth certificate, but all it really gave me was confirmation that Charles Devin wasn’t a good man.”
Sheryl patted her arm. “But your great-grandmother was a strong woman. You’ve got to respect what she did to protect her baby.”
“I know,” Peel said. “She protected him, but he was raised by this older couple. Mom said he had a lonely childhood.” She crossed her arms. “At some point Charles had to find out Elizabeth had died. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to remarry.”
“Maybe he didn’t know. He moved to Mexico. I’m sure no one checked to see if he was married previously. Why would they?” Sheryl’s logic made sense.
“Then he’s an even bigger asshole than I thought. I’ll bet his second wife had no idea he had a child.”
“Are you going to keep searching? Do you want to know if he had children with her?”
That was the question Peel had been pondering all day. She wondered if she had other relatives out there, but it seemed disloyal to Elizabeth Leary to search for them. She said as much to Sheryl.
“Well, look at you. I didn’t realize you were sentimental,” Sheryl said.
“Hey,” Peel protested. “I’ve got depth.” She blew out a breath. “I don’t know, Sheryl. Her dying wish was to keep him away from that family.”
“Since I’m sure he’s long gone, I don’t think you’ll betray her. There’s no harm in getting information.”
“I do like a good research challenge.”
Sheryl laughed. “Then consider yourself challenged. How’s your Spanish?”
“Borderline awful.” Peel moaned. “I took two years in high school, and then repeated the same two years in college. I’ll have to hope for a sympathetic English speaker.”
Two hours later, that’s what she found. After checking the time zone—central standard—she found the number to a local library and dialed. “Tierra de Oro Biblioteca.”
“¿Lo siento, hablas inglés?” Peel had looked up how to say, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?”
Within minutes, a second voice came on the line. “Hello, are you looking for an English speaker?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m sorry, my Spanish is very poor.”
“That’s fine. I like to practice my English. How can I help you?”
Peel summarized the discovery of the birth certificate and a little of her family history. “We don’t have a lot of records here at the biblioteca, but there are a few. Who are you researching?”
“Charles Devin is my great-grandfather. He married Louisa Sanchez.” When Peel heard a sharp intake of breath, she asked, “Do you know them?”
“Um, no. No.” The woman was fumbling with something in the background. “Sorry, I dropped something. Devin is the family name?”
“Yes. D-E-V-I-N. He married Louisa Sanchez. How much do you charge for research? Is it an hourly rate?”
“Don’t worry about money. I can look for you. You say you work in a biblioteca?”
“Yes, in Colorado. But I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”
The woman ignored her. “Tell me your name, again? And where are you located?” Peel repeated her name and the library’s information. The line was silent while the woman wrote. “I’ll call if I find anything.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can call you,” Peel said.
“No need. We’ll be in touch.”
It was a prophetic statement.